Are Fairytales Still Relevant Today?

Fairy tales have never really gone out of style, of course, but it wasn’t until I’d finished writing Slipper that I realized a whole industry in fairytale retellings of one sort or another has sprung up in the world of YA and adult literature. I can’t say it’s all that surprising, given that these familiar stories set off some deep-buried recognition in the reader; they ring the bell of our most primal emotions.

For a tale to ring that bell, it has to have the elements that drive the best stories. One is the presence of obstacles that have to be overcome by the hero or heroine. Once the dragon has been slain, the impossible task fulfilled, or the evil stepmother outwitted, it is the resulting relief and triumph that make for the most satisfying kind of conclusion any story can give you.

 Then there is wish fulfillment. There’s something wonderfully appealing about putting yourself into the shoes of someone who has been put through the wringer, but still manages to attain great wealth, gorgeous clothes, the love of a lifetime, or fame beyond her wildest dreams.

But the question that nagged at me as I was adapting the story of Cinderella was: in our cynical, unsentimental age, are happy endings still necessary? Can fairy tales be given a modern feminist twist, considering that they were first conceived many centuries ago, when a girl’s place was to be quiet, passive and obedient, and the only way out of your hopeless situation was to have a convenient fairy godmother? Given, of course, that you also possessed a sufficient dose of modesty, dazzling beauty, and unusually small feet. Really! Can that kind of simplistic story fly today?

That’s when you have to start digging into the story to extract the core nuggets of truth — the universal messages that resonate even today. In the case of Slipper, I found that many of the most classic fairytales can be recast to fit real, present day concerns. Who, for instance, hasn’t hoped and wished the boyfriend-frog will turn into a prince if we humor him enough? Who hasn’t gone to a dance bubbling with high expectations, only to go home with her hopes smashed like a pumpkin in the mud? Who hasn’t felt like the family underdog, scorned by mean siblings or neglectful parents, and secretly hoped it wasn’t her real family?

The reason that I chose the story of Cinderella as the starting point for my historical novel is that it is the most archetypal, and I think the most satisfying, of all the fairytales. It addresses the universal desire to be recognized for your “true”, or better, self. You may be misunderstood, exploited, despised; but in the end, all those sneering naysayers will be forced to admit that secretly you really were the bravest of heroes all along, or the most beautiful girl in the world… or just the coolest kid in school. Won’t they be sorry for the way they treated you, once your true identity is revealed!

Come to think of it, this Cinderella theme comes up in all the most popular stories of our time. It's there in Pride and Prejudice, in Harry Potter, in Jane Eyre, in Superman, Spiderman, Mean Girls, and Grease. It’s in every story where the wallflower, the loser or the nerd wins the prize in the end. It’s about getting through adolescence and coming out OK in the end. It’s about facing adversity, and finding your inner strength or your true worth. If that isn’t relevant today, what is?


(First published as guest post on Genie in a Book blog,

Translator’s Lament

Ménage à trois

Time to make the awkward introduction.

Reader, meet your author,

I’ll be your ventriloquist.

Allow me to explain you to you

the whisperer in the wings

doing what ghosts must do.


Pinned between the sheets,

I’ll be piggy in the middle;

a ham sandwich

you could say,

your indispensable partner

in our creative three-way.


So what’s it like, you ask,

being the essential cog?

More like the third wheel,

wallflower at the ball,

ready to be kicked out of bed

when final credits roll.


Only connect!

Listen for the song

As both a translator and writer of fiction, I am very conscious of the sound of the words on the page. You may assume that reading is a purely visual, eye-to-brain activity. But the fact is that most people are saying the words to themselves in their head as they read. Which means that rhythm and sound are too important to be taken for granted.

When I translate another author’s writing, I will very soon start to hear his or her voice in my head. The trick is to convert that very individual voice, its rhythms, patterns and cadence, into something equivalent in the target language (in my case English). Two random passages from two of my most recent translations can show how different voices give different effects. The first is from The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ years old:

“Old people make less adrenaline and dopamine, the compounds responsible for butterflies in the stomach and heart palpitations. But being in love isn’t about the quantity of hormones your body produces as much as the relative upswing in those hormones. In the elderly, that hormone surge can be just as great. Says the newspaper. Which might explain why when Eefje is near, I always find myself starting to stammer and stutter a bit.”

I like to think of Hendrik Groen as someone who is a softy at heart but doesn’t want anyone else to know it. His voice is straightforward, down-to-earth, a bit blunt, gruff and businesslike. Compare that to the more rhythmic narrative voice in the novel The Consequences by Niña Weijer, which was the next translation I tackled, and is about a young experimental artist:

“You may wonder why Minnie deliberately stepped out onto the thin ice at around two o’clock that afternoon, and stood there as it gave way, only slightly startled when this started happening beneath her feet, this transformation of solid into liquid. Or why she wasn’t just seeing the trees but was really staring at them and was certain they were sycamores. Or why she didn’t instinctively throw out her arms as in a parody of a tightrope walker, or why in hell none of it made any sound at all.”

The Book of Genesis (the King James Bible) may be the best example of musical, hypnotic prose, in which the word “and” is repeated over and over to create a poetic cadence. Its rhythms are masterful; they pull you into the story whether you intend to be swept away or not. Writers like Hemingway have taken that same repetitive approach and turned it into a mesmerizing tune of their own:

“Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” (A Farewell to Arms)

In writing dialogue, too, I think that it helps to think of the song, Every individual’s speech patterns are different, and if you pay close attention to those patterns, and try to be consistent with them, the reader will have less trouble distinguishing between the different voices, and will start recognize the characters by their voice-personalities.

I sometimes find myself humming to myself as I’m writing. There is something extremely satisfying in working on a sentence or paragraph, manipulating it, smoothing out the edges, injecting meaning and rhythm, crescendo and diminuendo, until it has the right “ring” to it. It’s an aspect of writing that isn’t often discussed, and it may be instinctive in most cases, but that doesn’t mean it is not important.

Endings, in particular, seem to demand a certain sound— a finality of rhythm and pace. It can be the end of a paragraph, the end of a chapter, or, most memorably, the last lines of a book. Listen for it in Scott Fitzgerland’s perfect final line,

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (The Great Gatsby)

Or in Dickens:

“They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.” (Little Dorrit)

When it came to finding an ending for my own novel Slipper, the “song” came to me almost impromptu:

“And, wondrous to relate, at that touch the fire began to glow again, first mildly sparking in their fingertips, but spreading rapidly past the elbows into the chest, and finally, as they fell gratefully into each other’s arms, turning into the wild conflagration they both remembered, that licked their bones and seared their loins and fed upon their innards.”

And through multiple rewrites, I left it just as it was.

(First published as The Song in You on the blog Whispering Stories)